Turbulent times and bad policies

We’re very busy at the moment. Monday last week was the first workday for our new manager. So besides continuing on all our normal projects and plans, we also needed to make sure that Emmanuel got to know about, yeah really, everything about REACT and the work we are doing and want to do in the future.
But it has been a massively good process. Emmanuel is a very clever, analytical and innovative figure, who has already been able to contribute with many ideas and a lot of energy. And I have no problem being busy, if I feel that it is moving something – and I really feel we are moving a lot at the moment.

My stay in Masanga is indeed entering a new era. When something new is added something will also disappear. In this case the thing disappearing is most of the Danish volunteers. Tonight we are having a goodbye party for like half of the people here, which will all leave during the next weeks. So hostel-life will really change a lot, with only like 6 people remaining to live here for some time.

But we’re not the only ones keeping busy. I’m quite positive that also goes for the Sierra Leonean government these days. Sierra Leone’s public sector has long been suffering from low payments. That is good in the sense, that the government can keep expenditures low, but bad in the sense that you have a very real brain-drain from Sierra Leone to other countries. The best educated personnel simply find employment in other countries, where they can be paid decently.

The answer: to increase salaries.

The government realised that the right move to keep the working force in the country would be to cater to their needs and increase the salary. Another benefit from this would be to lower the need for health personnel to engage in corrupt practices, as it should be less needed for them in order to make a decent living. And this actually comes on top of new policies ensuring pregnant women and children under 5 free treatment and medicine (to battle the frightening percentage of child mortality), so a lot is really happening in Sierra Leone. The government is certainly taking responsibility – which is great.

The only problem was the way they decided to do it. Instead of giving gradual pay raises over maybe a five to ten year period, they decided that it needed to be done; and needed to be done now. This meant that the salary of most health personnel was raised by between 100-200 % and for some even 6-doubled over night!

This has resulted in three apparent problems.
Firstly, the government will have used all of the money allotted for the scheme (over a five year period – coming from DFID (the English pendent to DANIDA) in particular) in just three months.
Secondly, it has really alienated the other public sector employees, which has also suffered from underpayment for decades. The college professors has thus already been striking, and rumours has it that the teachers’ union is also threatening to make every primary and secondary school teacher go on strike (that is class 1 to class 12 so to say). That will paralyse the education sector.
The exact same thing goes for the health personnel in the military, which could spill over into the military ranks themselves. And if there’s any lesson which is apparent in Africa south of Sahara it is this: don’t get on bad terms with your military – they will coup up.
The police are threatening to strike and so are the road workers. Where the money for all of these people should come from, I for one have no idea.
Thirdly, more than half of the revenues of the Sierra Leonean governments’ revenues come from international donors and development aid (!!). That makes Sierra Leone the country receiving most aid-money pr. capita in the entire world. A place like Masanga Hospital is included in these statistics. Here, all of the employees have come together to form a union, that can make demands for the hospital to raise the salaries in accordance with the government hospitals. But believe me, when I say, that can’t be done. The money is simply not there. And I could imagine that goes for a lot of places. Few organizations will be prepared to simply double or triple their salary budget. Will that cause some to leave or concentrate on projects in other countries?

The good thing about all of this must still be remembered. This is really grassroots democracy working. People are organizing to make demands and hold employers and the government accountable. That is a beautiful and important thing. Hopefully things won’t escalate into violence, which will serve no good. If not I think the whole event can give birth to useful structures and empower certain organizations to become credible voices for the groups they represent. That is a sign of health in my eyes. But for now the government really has created a giant mess of things and will surely need to do a lot of cleaning up.


A night at the library

In Sierra Leone the sun sets around 7 pm this time of year. Once it sets the night is upon you, and nowhere is accessible without a flashlight. This is the time our library opens, as 7-10 pm is the only time of day that electricity is guaranteed. On the way from the hostel towards the library it is impossible not to linger at the glossy stars against the pitch-black sky. There are so many, and they seem so bright and strong out here in rural Africa, where electric lights aren’t present to compete for your attention. A frog leaps hurriedly across the small path (in flight from a predating snake?). The animals of the jungle commence their song to the night.
Arriving at the library is like arriving to a cathedral of light. Mostly because it – like the stars – stands as a striking contrast to the dark night. Inside you can find much encouragement. Secondary school pupils in a concentrated effort to brush up on the curriculum before the impending WASSCE examinations (which will give them, what corresponds to a high-school certificate). A middle-aged woman bringing her small child, sits absorbed in a class 2 english language book – meant to children at the age of 8 – in an single-handed attempt to battle her illiterateness.
I turn on a computer and call on the group of class 3-4 kids that is sitting around a table, each with their English language book. Enthusiastically the hurry towards me, and are a few moments later discussing the math-puzzles appearing on the screen. I explain the function of the mouse and the keyboard, and tell them to take turns. Not long time passes before they master the game, and seem as accustomed to computers as Danish schoolchildren.
The ability of children to learn is so amazing.
As we tell them goodnight at 9, they all promises to come back the next night. And it seems to me that the cathedral of light does provide some enlightenment.


Spaces and other avenues

A modern life in Denmark offers many different spaces: a workspace, a spectre of cultural spaces, a sleeping space, a relaxation space, a space for doing your exercise, a virtual space. In our pursuit for self-realisation (that we in the West for the likes of Inglehart are deemed to engage ourselves in because of our level of wealth) we try to develop our self in multiple ways in multiple arenas.

The same specialization of spaces is difficult to recognize in Masanga. And I feel that it has actually been a bit difficult to adjust to. In Denmark you can let the spaces guide you in your choice of persona and object of pursuit. There your day can be divided into the time you spend in each space. In the morning I go from my universe of sleep and dreams to the kitchen – my space of gastronomy. From here I would maybe go to the library and take on the persona of academia. Or I would go to a café, open my laptop and suddenly be at work, a coffee in hand. Later one could visit a fitness center in the chase of the perfect body or go to the cinema for a cultural journey towards beauty or simply a journey of escapism. The late evening hours could besides another gastronomic experience offer some designated time of cosiness as we Danes are so fond of – accompanied by chocolate and red wine – in front of the television.

Of course there if a huge blurring of spaces as the above suggests. The present day’s flexibility – or ‘liquid modernity’ as Bauman suggested (a term which I quite like) – can diffuse spaces. A café is suddenly not only a place of pleasant conversations, but can also serve as a portal to a virtual space, where you can shape a new self or refine the picture of your present self on platforms like facebook, twitter or a blog like this one. Or the flexible character of your work can enable you to turn every space into your workspace simply by pressing ‘on’. But even though you yourself can help shape and form the spaces of everyday life, it doesn’t change the fact, that if you don’t lose yourself and get lost in the waves of this liquidity – which is our present – flexibility is yours to command.

Here things are very different. Almost all of my activities take place at the hostel. This is where I sleep, where I eat, where I read literary classics or watch a movie, and very often where I work. And also the flexibility is not present in the same way. You never know whether power will come on during the day, which makes computer time a rare and strategic commodity, the kitchen ladies are in charge of the menu, internet access has long been missing, and even the freedom of travelling is inhibited by the insecurity of available vehicles (until you reach a larger city).

Even exercise is not always in your power. The local boys often play football, but you (and they) can never be quite sure of the starting time (time seems to be more relative in Africa than anywhere else) which can vary with many hours, and often is cancelled.

For many of the locals there seems to be mostly four or five spaces available to them. The homespace which is designated to eating and sleeping, and taking care of your giant family. The workspace which can vary between one place in the week – maybe at the hospital – and another in the weekend – for many the mines surrounding Masanga. The cultural space is for many dominated by the secret societies that resides in the bush, and where secret rituals (such as circumcision of girls) are carried out. For many there are added different football venues to this. Both local gravelpitches and ‘theatres of dreams’ in the television. Finally there is the religious space, where meaning can be assigned to all of the other spaces.

That is really a major difference from Denmark to Sierra Leone as well. The role of religion. In Sierra Leone they got few spaces to explore and shape their selves, but all of these can be contributed meaning, because that is what religion offers. Answers to the fundamental questions of being – the meaning of this life and our engagement in these different spaces.
In Denmark it is the opposite. A nearly unlimited amount of spaces if offered, but for many, religion have lost its former role as the answer to our lives questions. And many are left to themselves to find some sort of meaning in this endless navigation of spaces and personas.

Hmm just some unstructured late evening thoughts for you guys.